Google needs a public charter

'Don't be evil' is a good start, but Google could be so much more

For all its protestations of ordinariness, Google is more than just a search company. It handles half the search queries of the world: if you're not indexed by Google, you're not on the Web. Google has the fate of thousands of online companies within its power, not to mention the experience of countless individuals. It may not be to everyone's taste, but that's the way it is.

This gives the company great power, and great responsibility. This is not an easy truth for a commercial organisation to swallow – Microsoft, for example, is constantly arguing that it is being victimised for its success. It is true nonetheless: there are different costs of doing business at different scales of success, and if you don't want to be held responsible for your actions when they affect billions of people, you shouldn't act at that level.

It works the other way around – with great responsibility comes great power and, if that responsibility is properly fulfilled, great trust. Google needs trust just as much as it needs connectivity, computers and caverns full of storage, and it must act to preserve and enhance that trust. The move this week towards greater openness is a sign that the company recognises this, but it's only a start.

Public service can be very successful – look at the BBC. That started out as a commercial organisation run for the benefit of manufacturers, then accepted public service obligations in exchange for being given the privileges of a monopoly. It has survived and even prospered as that monopoly turned into membership of an amazingly diverse and competitive media environment: while its domestic funding remains controversial, its status and importance at home and abroad are unmatched. This works because of the BBC's charter, which sets out the reasons for it to exist and the standards by which it can be judged.

If Google were to set out a charter of obligations and behaviour that codified its relationship to its users, it would acquire the moral authority that comes from public promises. An odd fit for a listed company in thrall to its shareholders, were it not for its prospectus statement that said it was never going to listen to them in the first place. Google has the power, perhaps even the obligation, to innovate at the highest level and recreate itself as something more than just another Microsoft on the make. We don't need that.

By making unambiguous and verifiable commitments to behaving in the interests of those who use it, the company would not only safeguard public trust, it would gain influence with regulators and governments around the world. With ISPs, telcos and other powerful interests making land grabs in the information economy, a voice like that at the table is essential.

Who else is there?

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